Minnesota Workers Celebrate As Gov. Dayton Signs $9.50 Wage Law

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Governor Mark Dayton signed the new minimum wage bill into law Monday in a jubilant celebration at the State Capitol that brought waves of emotion to the many groups that worked to see the law passed. The bill affects 375,000 minimum-wage workers in Minnesota, who will see their wages raised to $8 an hour starting in August and to $9.50 in 2016. Starting in 2018, the law calls for indexing to account for inflation, with an annual cap of 2.5 percent.

According to Dayton, the current minimum wage of $6.15 amounts only to 51 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of four. When the $9.50 rate goes into effect, it will provide an amount equivalent to 80 percent of the federal poverty level, which will most likely rise before 2016.

“We’re doing what Democrats do best,” Dayton said. “We’re reaching out to people who work hard, who need the help, who shouldn’t have to have a minimum wage in order to get paid a decent wage.”

Dayton joked that he’s been warned that jobs would leave the state for all of the 38 years he’s “been around these parts.” He added that every time Democrats do something that helps people, such as expanding medical assistance or raising taxes on the highest earners, warnings that jobs will leave the state resurface. “Well, you know what? I’m sort of surprised after 38 years there are any jobs left in the state, but the opposite is true. There are 155,000 more jobs in Minnesota today than when I took office three-and-a-half years ago. Employers are employing more people now than ever before — they speak much louder than that empty political rhetoric.”

According to Dayton, two thirds of Minnesotans supported raising the minimum wage, “not because they are going to benefit directly themselves — but because they know it’s the right thing to do.”

After he signed the bill, Dayton passed around his pens to community members and supporters, including the three young children of Jacey Berens, a minimum-wage worker with three jobs. “For years I have tried to cobble together enough work to survive,” Berens said. She then described how working as an office administrator, a house cleaner and a personal care assistant don’t add up. “I work incredibly hard but constantly fall behind,” she said. “By raising the wage to $9.50, and making sure that it keeps up with the cost of food, rent and gas, my kids and I will be better off. It will make a big difference for us — almost $300 a month.”

Peggy Flanagan, Executive Director of the Children’s Defense Fund and Co-Chair of the Raise the Wage Coalition, which encompasses more than 70 faith, labor and nonprofit groups, grew teary when she spoke after the signing, her voice faltering as she described her personal experience growing up with a single mother who worked at a minimum-wage job.

“Several weeks ago I had a conversation with her about what was going down here at the Capitol,” Flanagan said. “We talked about how difficult it was for her to balance being a good parent while worrying about how she was going to put food on the table and make sure that our rent was paid on time. She said that no one should have to struggle like our family did. And she told me that she was glad that there were so many good folks and people fighting to raise the minimum wage in Minnesota so that folks don’t need to struggle the way that we did.”

According to Flanagan, the wage hike will provide an additional $6,970 per year for men and women trying to make ends meet. “That means maybe (they can) buy bread AND milk,” she said.

Among the lawmakers who spoke at the signing ceremony was Sen. Jeff Hayden (DFL-Minneapolis), who said the bill means that minimum wage workers will see their first raise in a decade. “Right now in Minnesota, there are minimum wage workers doing the work we all depend one each and every day,” Hayden said. “They are in our restaurants, where we eat and our stores, where we shop. They are keeping our kids safe at daycare and helping our children learn at school. They are supporting loved ones in hospitals and they are providing care for our seniors and people with disabilities.” According to Hayden, far too many of these workers can’t pay rent, buy groceries or pay for gas. “Far too many working parents will earn so little for their labor that they will be forced to accept food stamps and (visit) food shelves to feed their children,” he said. “That’s not economic justice and that’s not the Minnesota that we want to live in.”

Though the mood of the event was one of celebration, many advocates said that there was still work to be done. For example, Lucila Domingues, from Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha CTUL, or Workers United in Struggle, in Spanish) said the organization is pushing big companies like Target Corp., to push their contractors to pay workers a living wage. “I feel very happy today that the bill passed,” Domingues said through a translator. “I feel it’s a very good step for workers, but we deserve a higher wage.”

Meanwhile, Sen. John Marty (DFL-Roseville) hopes that the legislature will return to the issue again.

“I’d like to see $10.75 an hour now, with the inflation adjusted from the 1960s,” he said. In addition, Marty hopes to press other issues that get at inequality in Minnesota such as the earned-income tax credit for low-income workers, which received a small bump this year, as well as a Minnesota health care plan that would provide care, rather than insurance, for all Minnesotans.

“If we do a few things like that, then we won’t have people living in poverty anymore,” Marty said.

Sheila Regan

Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis-based journalist. She's a regular contributor to The UpTake, and also contributes to TC Daily Planet and City Pages. Her work can also be found at mnartists, VitaMN, Classical MPR and in other local publications.

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